The adventures of T'Challa, king of Wakanda and hero of Marvel's newest blockbuster, Black Panther, gives solace to those burned by the calamities of our day, the shootings and the political strife. Television anchorpersons are enthusiastically but incorrectly calling Black Panther the first black superhero movie ever, even after decades of movies about mighty African-American fighters for justice that commenced in the 1970s wave of blaxplotiation films. What's clear, though, is that this mammoth hit is a cultural event of some size, with an opening weekend box office of $235 million. By coincidence, on our own scene, a far smaller and less formidable African-American hero is being celebrated at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, in an exhibit that runs through Aug. 5.
Charlie Brown's friend Franklin Armstrong made his debut in Peanuts one half century ago this year. It happened in the summer of 1968, a distant mirror to our own times of violence and political division, in the weeks between the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. And it started with a letter. A schoolteacher from Los Angeles, Harriet Glickman, wrote Santa Rosa's Charles Schulz. It's a fan's note for several paragraphs—"We are a totally Peanuts-oriented family"—before getting to the matter at hand:
It occurred to me today that the introduction of Negro children into the group of Schulz characters could happen with a minimum of impact. . . . I'm sure one doesn't make radical changes in so important an institution without a lot of shock waves from syndicates, clients, etc. You have, however, a stature and reputation which can withstand a great deal.
According to Andrew Farago, curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum and author of The Complete Peanuts Family Album, the cultural reach of Peanuts was huge when Franklin debuted.
"By the mid-'60s," Farago says, "Peanuts was one of the most widely read newspaper comic strips in the world, and thanks to books, merchandise and animation, the characters' audience and influence were growing exponentially."
Schulz, however, wrote back to Harriet Glickman saying he wasn't sure he was up to the task of writing a "non-patronizing" black character. Nevertheless, says Farago, Schulz "introduced readers to Franklin on July 31, 1968. Franklin and Charlie Brown hit it off immediately, reaction from readers and newspaper editors was overwhelmingly positive, and by that fall, Franklin was a regular member of the Peanuts cast."
It is an emotional thing to see a museum dedicated to something that is so much a part of your childhood—and, hence, so much a part of the person you are now. The Schulz Museum gets 100,000 visitors annually. Though Charles Schulz died 18 years ago this month, his strip is still printed, in reruns, in hundreds of papers, and could conceivably—since Schulz left behind nearly 18,000 daily and weekly comics—remain a feature up to the extinction of the newspaper.
At the Schulz Museum are relics of the artist's life: a re-creation of his studio and drawing board, and a childhood photo taken during the Great Depression of Schulz with the real Snoopy, a dog named Spike who was so ornery it ate glass.
The museum's largest piece is a huge mural of 3,500 strips printed on tiles. From a distance, they comprise the image of Lucy van Pelt pulling away the football as Charlie Brown goes straight for the pratfall. The whole history of comics offers little as funny as the glee disguised as guilessness on Lucy's face. That waltz between grifter and sucker—it never gets old.
"I was watching one of his last interviews, and Schulz was saying, 'It makes me so sad that he never got to kick that football,'" says museum director Karen Johnson.